Having mourned the annual passing of the peony blooms that scattered away last month with the wind, my fickle flower heart has fallen in love once again with the suddenly ubiquitous hydrangea. Two weeks ago, we were searching high and low through friends yards for a few blooms to use for the Royal Baby Shower Benefit. Now these large balls of fabulous flowers are everywhere providing delight to observant eyes all over town.
One of the famed Trinity of the Southern Garden (along with azalea and camilla) of garden design guru, Tara Dillard, the hydrangea is the perfect landscape plant (at least so long as herds of deer don’t roam the lands around you). Of the three, the hydrangea is the most giving so long as you follow its lead or at least acknowledge its few limitations. With these tips, a bit of care and the willpower not to immediately harvest every bloom, your hydrangea bushes will provide flowers even into the fall for your outdoor pleasure, as well as fresh and dried floral design.
While living next to a golf course has many advantages, the deer herd that makes the protected space its home is not one of them. There are so many things that I simply cannot plant in our yard for fear of the hungry deer. I just don’t have the stomach to risk the money, time and back-breaking effort that goes into planting specimens in the river-rock soil on which we live for a late-night forage by some hungry deer.
Only by grace do I happen to have any hydrangea growing on our property. My mother passed along some extra plants that she had been given after a Christening luncheon for my nephew. They had been purchased at a grocery store as tabletop decor with no real expectation of long-term survival. With no room left in her planting beds, she sent them home with me. Since they were free, I thought what the heck and eventually planted them along our northeast facing patio wall.
Sure enough, the deer found them during the late first winter and nibbled their delicate new leaves. Fortunately they were not completely destroyed and went on to green up throughout that summer. I talked with neighbors about their battles with the deer and began to do a bit of research of my own.
The following early spring, once again a midnight snack left me with uneven stems. Really, why can’t the deer at least leave a uniform trim? With some buds still left, I began applying my half-hearted natural barricade.
Starting with milorganite, a natural fertilizer that has the beneficial side-effect of repelling deer, I would sprinkle the plants and ground around the hydrangea. As with any organic repellant, water, whether from the sprinkler or the heavens, will wash the barrier away. Vigilant warrior I am not, so I would often discover that the deer had once again won a late night battle, but despite their efforts, my five little plants somehow survived. Fast forward 6 years, and my hydrangeas seem to be thriving. With only an occasional sprinkle of red pepper as warning, the deer’s rare snacks are not as devastating. Either I have trained most of them to stay away or they just prefer the more tender buds of my nearby Knock Out roses instead.
While I can’t say that I have conquered the neighboring moochers, I couldn’t be happier that each year I have more and more blooms to enjoy outside or in. As the bushes continue to grow taller, I can now even hope that one day soon my plants might provide a natural screen from the neighbor’s sun porch. The surprising lesson to learn from my tale: Don’t let your fear of deer keep you from planting what you love. Apparently the more you have to share, the less it seems these scavengers will take. Maybe instinctively they know not to completely desiccate their food source.
In RVA, we tend to see these four types of hydrangea:
No doubt the most recognizable hydrangea, the mophead provides giant balls of color in pink, white or blue. The “Endless Summer” variety seems to be taking the area by storm because it will continue to bloom after being cut and you don’t have to worry much about when you prune one. The traditional mopheads, as well as lacecaps, should be pruned in late summer before they set their blooms for the next year.
Of the same family as mophead hydrangeas, the lacecaps is distinguished by its flatter overall flower and larger buds on the outside of each bloom. Considered more graceful and subtle than the bolder mopheads, both types of hydrangea like morning sun and afternoon shade. Similarly, both types can be pink, blue or occasionally white.
These babies love the southeast corner of Ellen’s house. Tall and elegant and easily mistaken for snowball viburnum, the flower balls start out green then turn white and finally return to green. Despite the size of the plants, they do seem more delicate than the mophead and lacecaps and can be greatly affected by storms. Planting them along a fence for support is ideal. You don’t need to worry about when to prune these except for right before they bloom in early summer.
This hydrangea type fascinates me. Its bold leaves (which as the name suggests look much like oak leaves) and unusual elongated shape are hard to miss in the landscape. While not the traditional hydrangea that you will find in more formal flower arrangements, it makes for a stunning eye-catching addition when used. Like mophead and lacecaps, these bushes should be pruned in late summer before they begin setting blooms for the next year.
A fifth variety of hydrangea is known as PeeGee and can be pruned to tree form and at any time except right before the blooming season. They get huge: 8-10 feet tall. Since I have not been able to locate any in our neighborhoods and have never used them to my knowledge in arrangements, I cannot include them in this local variety list.
Changing a Hydrangea’s Color
Experts recommend buying and planting your hydrangea plants when they are blooming to know what exactly you are getting. If you buy a white hydrangea, it is going to stay white, though as it ages on the bush, it may take on a pinkish red tint. If you buy a pink or blue mophead or lacecap, there is no guarantee that your plant will remain that color. The color has to do with the amount of aluminum in your soil. Aluminum causes the blue hues, and lack of aluminum tends to pinks.
As described on Hydrangeas! Hydrangeas!, to try to get your hydrangeas to bloom pink, you can add lime to raise the soil’s pH to help prevent the plant from taking in aluminum in the soil. For blue hydrangeas, add aluminum sulfate to the soil while trying to lower the soil’s pH with things like coffee grinds and fruit and vegetable peels and grass clippings (sounds like good compost to me). Plants that have recently been transplanted or are otherwise in transition seem schizophrenic with both pink and blue blossoms.
It is generally easier to turn a pink plant blue by adding aluminum than to turn a blue plant pink by eliminating aluminum. When I think about this color formulation, it starts to hurt my head, so I have yet to actually try to change my pinks to blue though I promise myself every year that I will. Have you had any success with making a hydrangea change its color?
Harvesting Your Blossoms
Like most flowers, the best time to cut hydrangea blooms is in the morning or evening. With the humid summer days that we have around here, most hydrangea are wilting on their stems in mid-day. After cutting just above a leaf joint, immediately place the cut stalks into water that you have carried outside with you.
The older the bloom, the more likely it is to keep its shape without wilting. Look for flowers that are fully developed and seem to have a bit of age on them. If you cut them when they are just old enough, you can let the water in a vase evaporate, and the stems will dry beautifully for you. Save this plan for blooms harvested later in the summer.
Using in Floral Design
Floral designers love working with hydrangeas because of their big size and impact. Especially when designing arrangements for church altars that must be seen from far down the aisle, hydrangeas can be a flower guild member’s best friend. Just because they are big, though, does not mean that they are always the right choice for the arrangement.
As I have mentioned above, hydrangea tend to wilt. While none of us can hardly wait to put hydrangeas into flower arrangements the minute that they bloom, caution must be taken and prayers must be said. If you want to anchor your flower arrangement in oasis, think twice or three times before adding hydrangea.
If you must, then as you say your prayers follow this Flower Camp tip from mEl: dip the recut stem into at least ½” of alum, a spice that you can find in your grocery store. According to local floral designer extraordinaire, Ruth Cunningham, an alternative to the alum dip is to hold the stems for 30 seconds in boiled water poured into a cup. If your arrangement has to last for at least a couple of days, it is always a good idea to have a couple of extra hydrangea on hand to use as replacements if you can’t revive them by the boiled water method or submerging the whole flower and stem fully in cool water for a couple of hours.
Your best bet is to wait until later in the summer to attempt to use older hydrangea plants and blossoms in arrangements. With their sturdier infrastructure, you will be less worried about the hydrangeas in the arrangement than your other flowers.
Of course, I did not follow my own advice for this floral centerpiece and door prize created for our Royal Baby Shower Benefit.
Using my peony magic trick, I was thrilled to be able to mix my own garden peonies with some of posse’s first local hydrangea blooms. While the peonies were harvested then refrigerator bare-stemmed mid-May, the hydrangeas were all harvested June 1 and immediately placed in water.
Because the date of our shower wouldn’t allow them time to mature, we took our snips from friends’ yards, crossed our fingers and said our prayers. We also treated them with a dip in alum before placing them in the oasis base of the table centerpiece. Fortunately, these floral arranging tips worked, and the hydrangeas held their shape at least until the day after the shower.
Hydrangeas are so versatile in flower design. They are fabulous in formal arrangements like the baby shower one or this Christmas arrangement above with dried hydrangeas. On the other hand, they can be as informal as they sometimes look in the landscape: just perfect for a picnic or simple dinner on the patio.
With this collection of tips gathered over the years, I am as happy as pig in mud come hydrangea season. They really make an almost perfect landscape plant for any home and garden, large or small. I love spotting them as I drive around town and have had so much fun catching them on camera for you that I think I need this bumper sticker:
Have you got any suggestions to add to this list of tips? We would love to share them with the posse and encourage others to plant, use and enjoy their hydrangeas.